This past Monday, June 12, was Russia Day. The holiday dates back to 1992, marking the first tangible steps taken in the creation of the modern post-Soviet constitution in Russia. As such, cities like Moscow were taking steps to celebrate the occasion with music, food, fireworks, and more.
However, there was more planned for this day. RussianVibe readers may have read my post on the anti-corruption march that took place in numerous Russian cities earlier this year (if you haven’t, take a look here). In a sense, Round Two of these protests, organized largely by vocal anti-Putin critic Alexei Navalny, were planned for the same day.
As I touched on in the previous post, Navalny has, with some success, tapped into a mounting sentiment that sees Russian leadership as corrupt and consistently failing to take citizens’ best interests to heart. What this means varies from person to person and from demonstration to demonstration, however.
This time around, there were actually two demonstrations planned: One organized by Navalny and his supporters against government corruption and another focused largely on the controversial residential demolition projects planned for Moscow.
This latter issue has gained some attention from Western media. If you aren’t in the know, then (at the risk of oversimplifying things) I’ll try to fill in the blanks.
Right now there is a campaign in Moscow aimed at the mass demolition of numerous apartment blocks known as Khrushchevki – mass housing created under, you guested it, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev roughly half a century ago.
City officials say this project is the largest of its kind in Moscow since the original construction of the Khrushchevki housing units. Though apartment owners have been allowed to vote on whether to permit demolition, Moscow lawmakers this week approved it seemingly without regard to the votes. And this has generated a great deal of ire.
Aside from a sense that these actions are being forced upon Muscovites, many are deeply skeptical the transition, even if they agree with the basic idea – will they end up in new apartments of equal value? Will they be in the same areas they have been living in for years?
Navalny wisely sought to seize upon the resentment Muscovites have developed over the demolition plans. As such, he set to organizing a demonstration on Tverskaya Street, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares. This was also the site of the previous demonstration, you may recall.
In Russia, to hold any sort of rally requires city approval in advance. Though it is doubtful permission would have been granted had it not been held on Russia Day, the reasons given for denying a permit to Navalny included that it would interfere with planned holiday celebrations.
I should also point out that numerous other cities participated, some legally and some not.
Obviously, however, this did little to deter protesters from gathering at Tverskaya in Moscow. I arrived on scene in the early afternoon. The Tverskaya metro station is one of Moscow’s busiest on a typical days, but this time it was the busiest I’d seen. Many people with their families were headed to enjoy the Russia Day festivities while a great deal of others were clearly on their way to participate in the rally.
After emerging from the metro station onto the street, there were a number of sign waving, chanting protesters – had I arrived even 20 minutes later I might not have been able to exit the metro at all due to the sheer number of people.
Unlike the previous demonstration, police seemed to be using more aggressive tactics. Before I came up to the street, the riot police had set up barriers around the densely packed square, using public transport buses and police vehicles to do so. I saw this being done last time too.
However, what I soon witnessed were periodic raids (for lack of a better term) by groups of a half dozen heavily armored riot police. They were decked out in their heavy padding and easily recognizable bubble helmets (an appearance which has earned them the mocking nickname “cosmonauts”).
These raids typically went like this: A line would be formed by the group of riot police; grabbing each other on the shoulder while brandishing a baton with the other hand, they would rush into the crowd very quickly. They would then shove aside anyone in their way while, in a seemingly random manner, picking a protester to physically pick up to haul back to a police van as quickly as they had swooped in. And by pick up, I mean this literally – each limb would be held by a cop while they rushed back to stick them in a police van. Most of the people they chose to detain were young.
Being as I was in the thick of it – at times even almost knocked down by groups of riot police suddenly rushing by – my adrenaline gland was getting a good workout. This tactic was clearly intended to be intimidating, especially as it seemed that anyone could be hauled away at any time. Even still, it seemed to do little to scare off the demonstrators. Maybe because this is old hat for activists in Russia?What I found particularly interesting was the crowd’s reaction to these raids. As soon as one began, a chants of “Shame!” would ripple like a wave through as the police tore through the protesters. In a way, it was more than a mere mocking chant, but a sort of group alert system – if you heard “Shame!” being yelled near you, you knew it was time to be prepared to be shoved aside (or worse).
There were other interesting protest chants; some expressing an anti-Putin sentiment and another which was somewhat humorous to me: “Krya, krya!” (apparently what ducks in Russia sound like when they quack). Ducks in general have emerged as a symbol of opposition (for an explanation why, refer to my post about the previous demonstration).
Though I did not witness it myself, protesters in another city brought a large duck with them – which ended up getting arrested, absurdly enough.
While the government has tried to portray such protesters as primarily rabble rousing youth, this certainly was not what I witnessed. While, yes, there were a number of sub-30 year olds, all ages seemed well represented. In fact, I was a bit surprised at the number of elderly folk on the scene.
In all, it was a bit of an intense experience, especially as a foreigner. Even still, it was unique to experience this side of Russia once more – I have been fortunate enough to witness acts of civil disobedience in a country that the rest of the world sees as inescapably authoritarian.
Check out more wonderful images from the rally below; click to see them in high resolution!